Monday, November 12, 2012

Bring the Extreme--Is There Such a Thing as a Characteristic a Hero/ine Can't Have?

First off, thanks to the Word-Whores for letting me guest post today. I like being a temporary word-whore...or does that make me merely a word-tease? Oh dear. Regardless, I'm glad to be here.

Photo by D Sharon Pruitt
From Wikimedia Commons
This week's topic is "Defining The Hero(ine): Characteristics They Can/Can't Have." I think the question has two answers. From a specific reader's perspective, there are definitely characteristics and/or actions each reader will put down a book over. A perfect example is Jamie Fraser from Diana Gabaldon's Outlander. Ask a group of readers whom their favorite heroes are, and he will make a lot of lists... yet I've read quite a few reviews of the book from people who put it down after Jamie willingly (one might say happily) beat Claire--because no matter how amazing he was in every other way or what caused him to do this, it was a line that, for them, could not be crossed.

But clearly, despite particular readers' distress over Jaime's character, Outlander has been wildly successful. And this is where my second answer to the question comes from. As long as the characteristic doesn't prevent the hero/ine from fulfilling their genre obligations (i.e.erotic romance featuring a monk who is faithful to his vows), I think it's possible to pull off any trait--provided it fits the book's theme, the worldbuilding supports it and its negativity is balanced by equally attractive or sympathetic traits. This is especially true in speculative fiction where the world rules can vary so wildly, making all sorts of normally inappropriate behavior seem acceptable. There will be readers who put the book down over personal hot button issues, and some characteristics are a harder sell than others. But that doesn't make them impossible.

Unrepentant drug addict? Chess Putnam from Stacia Kane's Downside Ghosts series is one of my favorite heroines. Adulterer? Bridges of Madison County. Or Jay Gatsby (I have little sympathy for Daisy, but I fall in love with Gatsby every time I read F. Scott Fitzgerald's most famous work.) Sadistic mass-murderer? There should be no way. But then there’s Dexter. Or Hannibal Lector. The character that takes them all, in my opinion, is Alex from Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. The uber-violent protagonist drugs and rapes children (in the book) as one of his many atrocities and later manages to elicit sympathy from the audience when the government stops him from raping and murdering. There are a lot of people who dislike it, but A Clockwork Orange is frequently considered one of the great science fiction novels of the twentieth century. Its hero breaks taboo after taboo then says something snarky and listens to some Beethoven and many readers give him a pass.

Woldbuilding, backstory and strong positive traits are key to making it work. Most books have heroes and heroines that, while best suited to the book they’re in, could show up in another novel and still be a likable person. But more extreme characters would rarely work taken out of their book and randomly inserted into another. Chess's world with zombie-like ghosts and an atheist church running the government is enough to drive me to pills, and her willingness to throw herself on the line for others makes her easy to root for. Jay Gatsby's past with Daisy in a world where money rules combined with his loyalty and devotion to her makes their affair forgivable. Alex may be a monster, but the society and government that spawned him is frequently worse. These things are all needed to help us sympathize with (or endure) these heroes' out-of-bounds characteristics and behavior.

On the other hand, while the occasional dip into the bizarre can be engaging, I wouldn’t want to spend my life reading only books whose heroes and heroines bend social norms to such an extreme. While I'm not sure there is anything impossible to pull off (again, given genre constraints), the set of characteristics I want to find in my typical curl-up-with-a-good-book hero/ine are far more limited in scope… but that’s another post entirely.

What do you think? Is any characteristic completely off limits for publication in modern fiction?


Jax Garren writes paranormal books based in myth and set in the modern world. Her new release, How Beauty Met the Beast, features Hauk, a hero with an unusual characteristic for a romance. No rakish scars for him (hello, Jay Ryan), he’s grotesquely disfigured from a fire. The adventures of Hauk and Jolie continue in How Beauty Saved the Beast, coming in February, and resolve in How Beauty Loved the Beast, coming in May. You can find Jax on the web, Twitter, Goodreads, and Facebook.

6 comments:

  1. I would have said anyone who exploits those unable to consent, but you've made a convincing argument otherwise! However...I wonder if a female as opposed to a male could be forgiven such things.

    Glad you could be our Word-Tease of the week!

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    1. I hadn't read your article before I wrote this, and you make a good point about gender double standards. I imagine it would up the challenge of acceptance quite a bit. It's an interesting question.

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  2. Well, you can't go limiting what a character can do or it is no longer that character. Every reader has their own line they won't cross when reader certain subject matter. It is up to the reader to decide what is too far and choose not to read it. The writer should write whatever they want without worry.

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    1. I'm with you. I think it's important to give creators of any form the right to say what they feel a need to say, and let readers/consumers self-select what they will and won't accept. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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  3. Hey, great post, Jax! What fun to have you stop by.

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    1. Thanks, Carolyn! I had fun with the topic.

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